by Kevin Moore
The most important lesson of history is that the lessons of history are not learned.
The First World War was the first grand-scale industrial war in which millions of men and women died as a consequence of weaponry made possible by advanced chemistry. It was to have been ‘the war to end all wars.’ However, the League of Nations, established shortly after it ended, dissolved into failure in the mid-1930s and did not prevent the Second World War, in which some horrors — such as trench warfare and gas attacks — were not repeated, but new ones — such as the fire bombing of cities by aircraft, and atomic bombs — were invented. Between those wars the Roaring Twenties saw a bubble economy grow and burst, and the Great Depression saw millions of people thrown into poverty.
Thirty years of widespread upheaval and suffering seemed enough: the United Nations was established after World War Two. The U.N. was supposedly going to lead humanity into a brave new world, in which conflict would be resolved around a table. In practice there was a period of peace that lasted for five years (if we ignore the Chinese Civil War and independence movements in occupied territories), after which humanity reverted to using industrial warfare to ‘solve’ international disagreements. The Korean War marked a precedent in recent human history insofar as no peace treaty has been signed. Low-level hostilities continue to this day: it seems to be a war without end.
In Brave New World, written in 1931, Aldous Huxley suggested the world far into the future would be one of humans selectively bred in laboratories to create a peaceful, hierarchical society, consisting of a small minority of elites (alphas) living in extraordinary affluence, their lifestyle being supported by a series of lower castes (betas, gammas, deltas, and epsilons), all kept passive through the provision of ‘soma.’ There are no family relationships, and sex is a recreational activity unconnected with reproduction.
In 1984, written during 1947-8, George Orwell suggested the world much more immediately in the future would be one of a surveillance society, in which ‘ignorance is strength,’ ‘freedom is slavery’ and ‘war is peace,’ a world of declining living standards and perpetual war in which no thought or action is permissible unless sanctioned by the government. Life is generally grim for everyone except inner party members.
Both authors suggested that the majority of people do not question their condition. Of course, in order to question one’s condition, one does need a frame of reference, either to have experienced something different (a different way of living in a different time or a different place), or be aware of inconsistencies in ‘the system,’ as was the case in Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which all animals were equal but some were ‘more equal’ than others. The extent to which the modern world is a blend of Brave New World and 1984 has been the subject of a plethora of articles and essays. (If the reader is not familiar with the works it is recommended they be read at the earliest convenience).
The phenomenon of baseline shift can explain some of the failure of most people to recognise dysfunction. Consider the eastern coast of what we now call the United States. Four hundred years ago it was a largely natural habitat, exhibiting a wide range of plant and animal species, with indigenous humans living in a state of fairly stable equilibrium within that habitat, as their ancestors had done for thousands of years. The arrival of European settlers in the early 1600s seriously disturbed that equilibrium, and within two centuries numerous large towns and cities had been built. Within another century the human population had exploded, and tower blocks and skyscrapers were being constructed. In the case of Manhattan, one century later little of the land surface was not covered in concrete and asphalt.
If it were possible for someone living in that region four hundred years ago to travel through time to the present day, the transformation would be utterly shocking, and the landscape almost unrecognisable to them. However, to children born into the modern New York City environment everything looks perfectly normal, since they know no different. In other words, each generation tends to accept whatever it sees as being normal, however abnormal it is. The baseline for comparisons constantly shifts. Thus, if the population of songbirds falls by 20% per human generation, after three generations (0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 = 0.51) it will be down to half of the starting figure, yet each generation witnesses a relatively small decline and has no experience of the population of songbirds that existed at the time their grandparents were born. Much the same argument applies to forests, frogs, fish or bees.
Humans are a remarkably adaptive species. Unfortunately that ability to adapt makes the phenomenon of baseline shift one of the most dangerous for human societies, since whatever living arrangement humans are presented with can quickly become the norm. In working-class Britain in the 1950s very few households had a telephone, televisions were a newly available novelty, very few people owned cars, and there was no such thing as a personal computer. By the 1980s telephones, televisions and cars had become commonplace, and twenty years later personal computers and cell phones were commonplace. Such is the effect of baseline shift that, at this point of time, many adolescents throughout the western world regard televisions, cell phones and personal computers as necessities, and desire to own a car at the earliest opportunity. Indeed, for some young people, to not have ready access to such items is to be ‘seriously underprivileged.’
This state of perceived entitlement is not the fault of the young people, of course. They have been misled into believing the Earth can deliver much more than it actually can by their elders, many of whom also have an unrealistic sense of entitlement, believing they are entitled to regular overseas holidays, latest model transport, and houses two or three times the size they grew up in. We might ask where notions of entitlement that are far removed from the reality of human origins, far removed from what the Earth can sustainably provide, and far removed from all spiritual teachings –- to live simply and not store up worldly possessions — have been generated. Some answers are provided in later sections of this text.
This perception of entitlement that many people living in western societies have has led some commentators to describe the age we have been living in as the Age of Entitlement. The age that follows the Age of Entitlement is the Age of Consequences. The bad news is that consequences are real, and that the Age of Consequences has already commenced. In practice there is considerable overlap, a transition phase, as one age waxes and the other wanes. Unfortunately, even as the Age of Consequences becomes ever more evident to those who are ‘awake,’ a large portion of the populace remains psychologically locked into the vanishing Age of Entitlement, believing it will go on forever. And because they have lived their entire lives in a period of technological innovation, even as the consequences of failing to live within ecological limits get worse by the day, many people continue to believe that every problem has a technological solution. It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, for them to recognise that the chief source of problems we now face is technological innovation that occurred in the past.
One important technological connection that most people living in western societies fail to make concerns their food supply: they fail to recognise that machinery which is dependent on oil is used to plough land, to plant seeds, to fertilise crops, to harvest crops, to process food, and to transport food to shops. They also fail to recognise that oil is a finite resource which will not be available for much longer. Connecting these statements, people fail to recognise that the industrial agricultural system has no long-term future. In fact it may not have even a short-term future when other factors are considered. In the film Blind Spot, emeritus Professor Albert Bartlett commented: “Modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food. This is not high-level mathematics. This is not rocket science. This is just plain common sense. And it is universally rejected by the business community, the commercial community, [and] the political community.”
It is said that Horatio Nelson, after receiving instructions he did not wish to comply with, held a telescope to his blind eye and said: “I really do not see the signal.” It can be said, with considerable justification, that one of the defining characteristics of western societies is that most people ‘do not see the signal.’ Unlike Nelson, who went on to win many battles, western societies are in a predicament. Predicaments do not vanish if we close our eyes and ‘do not see the signals.’ They get worse.
‘If you hear a fire alarm you should ignore it and carry on with whatever you are doing. Only when the paint on the door of the room you are in starts to turn black should you begin to think about your escape plan.’ That was tongue in cheek, of course. However, studies have repeatedly demonstrated the reluctance of people to respond to alarms. Upon hearing a fire alarm, rather than taking decisive action, subjects in groups tend to seek cues from others; if others ignore the alarm, they also tend to. That is particularly so if an authority figure is present and that person ignores the alarm, or even worse, tells everyone to ignore the alarm. On the other hand, if an authority figure suggests the venue be evacuated immediately, all those present usually respond quickly.
We thus begin to understand why only a tiny minority of people in western societies have responded to numerous alarms which have been sounded by aware people on a wide range of issues over many decades: authority figures have consistently ignored the alarms, so those who look to them for guidance have ignored the alarms; the corporate media have downplayed the significance of the alarms, have lampooned them, or have not reported them at all. When we add the general observations that people believe what they want to believe, and that doing nothing is normally the easiest option, we see a recipe for disaster.
Having been transported across Europe in railway wagons, most Jews arriving at camps in Poland had their possessions and clothing taken from them. Even as they stood naked in the ‘shower’ rooms, many had little idea what would happen next. Only when the gas canisters began releasing their poison did they fully comprehend the nature of their predicament.
All the evidence indicates it will be much the same for the bulk of humanity when it comes to dealing with the major issues of our times. We now face the most testing time in all of history, for which everyone who is in a position to prepare should do so. However, it seems that only when everything they think they have has been taken away from them, only when they have lost everything they think they are entitled to, will most people realise the full extent of their predicament. It seems that only when they have lost ‘everything’ will most people living in industrialised societies fully realise the extent to which they have been lied to and misled.
The preceding essay is excerpted from The Easy Way, by Kevin Moore, published July 2011. The Easy Way is available online and via email from the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Guy McPherson’s memoir, Walking Away from Empire, is available from the publisher at this link.